Local customs and laws

1 Introduction
2 Calmness
3 Dress
4 Face
5 Gifts
6 Heads, hands and feet
7 Open affection
8 Punctuality
9 Religion

As a rule, Indonesians are courteous and understanding. Visitors should be the same. Foreigners are often given the benefit of the doubt when norms are transgressed. However, it is best to have a grasp of at least the basics of accepted behaviour. There are also some areas - such as Aceh in North Sumatra - that are more fervently Muslim than other parts of the country. With such a diverse array of cultures and religions, accepted conduct varies. Generally, the more popular an area is (as a tourist destination) the more understanding local people are likely to be of tourist habits. But this is not to imply that anything goes. It is also true that familiarity can breed contempt, so even in places like Bali it is important to be sensitive to the essentials of local culture.


Like other countries of Southeast Asia, a calm attitude is highly admired, especially if things are going wrong. Keep calm and cool when bargaining, or waiting for a delayed bus or appointment.


Indonesia is largely a Muslim country. Dress modestly and avoid shorts, short skirts and sleeveless dresses or shirts (except at the beach). Public nudity and topless bathing are not acceptable. Light clothing is suitable all year round, except at night in the mountains. Proper decorum should be observed when visiting places of worship; shorts are not permitted in mosques, shoulders and arms should be covered, and women must cover their heads. Formal dress for men normally consists of a batik shirt and trousers; suits are rarely worn. Local women usually wear a


People should not be forced to lose face in public; especially in front of colleagues. Putting someone in a position of
or social shame should be avoided.


If you are invited to somebody's home, it is customary to take a gift. This is not opened until after the visitor has left. Most small general stores have a range of pre-wrapped and boxed gifts, appropriate for a variety of occasions including weddings. These are usually items of china or glasses.

Heads, hands and feet

The head is considered sacred and should never be touched (especially those of children). Handshaking is common among both men and women, but the use of the left hand to give or receive is taboo. When eating with fingers, use the right hand only. Pointing with your finger is impolite; use your thumb to point. Beckon buses (or any person) with a flapping motion of your right hand down by your side. When sitting with others, do not cross your legs; it is considered disrespectful. Do not point with your feet and keep them off tables. Remove shoes when entering houses.

Open affection

Public displays of affection between men and women are considered objectionable. However, Indonesians of the same sex tend to be affectionate - holding hands, for example.


Jam karet
or 'rubber time' is a peculiarly Indonesian phenomenon. Patience and a cool head are very important; appointments are rarely at the time arranged.


Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. In Java,
is a synthesis of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism - although the extent to which it is 'syncretic' is vigorously debated. Orthodox Islam is strongest in North Sumatra (Aceh), but is also present in parts of Sulawesi, Kalimantan and West Java. Since the Bali bombings and suicide attacks in Jakarta, Islam in Indonesia, and the pesentren (Islamic boarding schools - the most famous being Al-Mukmin Ngruki in Java with graduates including the Bali bombers) have been put under the microscope with the government keen to disassociate itself with any links to fundamentalist groups. However, the government has so far proved itself unable to stop radical groups agitating, despite placing huge emphasis on intelligence and anti-terror schemes.

are sacred houses of prayer; non-Muslims can enter a mosque, so long as they observe the appropriate customs: remove shoes before entering, dress appropriately, do not disturb the peace, and do not walk too close to or in front of somebody who is praying. During the fasting month of Ramadan, do not eat, drink or smoke in the presence of Muslims during daylight hours.

Bali has remained a
island, and remnants of Hinduism are also evident in parts of Central and East Java. To enter a temple or
on Bali, it is often necessary to wear a sash around the waist (at some temples a sarong is also required); these are available for hire at the more popular temples, or can be bought. Modest and tidy dress is also required when visiting Hindu temples; women should not enter wearing short dresses or with bare shoulders. Do not use flash during ceremonies. Women menstruating are requested not to enter temples.

Pockets of
can be found throughout the archipelago, notably in East Nusa Tenggara, around Danau Toba and Sulawesi. Evangelical Christianity is enjoying large numbers of converts among the ethnic Chinese.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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